This month is all about habits.
Although it is easy to say, “I’m going to start doing X,” we all know it’s not that simple. This week’s post is an introduction to habits—I’m calling it Habits 101. Keep reading to learn what habits are, why certain habits are easier to start or kick than others, and practical takeaways on how you can build habits.
What are Habits?
Behaviors become habits when we no longer have to rely upon our willpower to do them. According to Psychology Today, “the behavioral patterns we repeat most often are literally etched into our neural pathways,” which results in behaviors becoming automatic. Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before is focused on habit formation. She writes in the “about” page for her book: “Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. We repeat about 40% of our behavior almost daily, so if we change our habits, we change our lives.” I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely interested in changing my life.
Your Habits are YOUR Habits
Rubin writes in the introduction to her “Self Knowledge” section of Better than Before, “To shape our habits successfully, we must know ourselves. We can’t presume that if a habit-formation strategy works for one person, it will work just as well for anyone else, because people are very different from one another” (13, emphasis original).
Now, it’s important to throw in a side note here: I know that not everyone likes to label themselves as X or Y or Z. I personally enjoy nestling myself into identity boxes: my Sun sign is Libra, my tendency is Obliger, I am a scholar of feminist and queer historiography, I’m an introvert. I know that thinking is not all black and white, and that restricting ourselves to only one world view can be limiting , but knowing myself via labels helps me make decisions and make sense of how I want to dedicate my time, energy, and purpose.
So, I was really excited when I learned that Rubin had broken down her Self Knowledge section to include either/or distinctions to help readers better understand how we can develop habits as individuals. I’ll share some of them here, and note that you could fit anywhere on these scales (or you might have your own category entirely).
Lark or Owl? Morning or Night? I hate waking up early, but I get my best work done over coffee, alone, from 8am-12pm. I can easily start my day at 10 and work until 7pm, though.
Finisher or Opener? Do you enjoy finishing tasks or starting/opening tasks? I’m much more excited by opening or starting tasks, although I thrive on routine. I don’t get much thrill from the act of turning in an assignment, but I do enjoy what I get to begin next as a result of completing a task.
Familiarity Lover or Novelty Lover? I love familiarity. Once I find a dish I like at a restaurant, I order that same dish every time I go back. I buy the same cardigan in multiple colors. I do my makeup the same way every day. And I love it. Some people thrive on newness and adventure. I am not them.
So why is it important to ask ourselves questions like this? Because if we want to build habits, we should go with the river instead of against it. No matter how hard I have tried, I have yet to happily go to bed early and wake up early, so setting a habit such as Go to the gym from 6am-7am would not work for me, because I would resist it.
How Do Habits Function For Me?
I used Rubin’s distinctions to inspire my own list of what works for me (pay attention to these, because they will be in the Takeaways section later):
What habits have I already developed?
- Taking a candlelit bath at night and reading YA novels or self development books.
- Making waffles to eat on my drive to work when I have to leave the house by 7:15 am on Tuesday and Thursdays.
- Making dinner or picking up dinner right after the gym.
- Getting sushi on Friday nights with sweetie.
- Turning on a lavender oil diffuser/humidifier at night before I sleep.
What habits would I like to stop?
- Procrastinating on the internet.
- Waiting to grade all of my students’ essays on one day instead of spreading them out over a week.
- Negative self talk.
What habits would I like to start?
- Keep track of my ideas and reflections in a small notebook.
- Plan dinners ahead of time, either takeout or making at home.
- Listen more than I talk. Ask people what they would do in my situation, and genuinely listen.
- Walk outside more. This is something I do daily in the summer, but haven’t done as much in the winter.
So How Do I Change my Habits?
Once I had my lists, I thought about why I struggled with enacting new habits. I had two answers: I forget that I want to do them, and I don’t have the energy. When I was bemoaning to my sweetie about how I don’t have the physical and mental energy to work nonstop for 12 hours like I used to, she reminded me that perhaps this is because it was unsustainable in the first place—we aren’t meant to be “on” for that long. That external voice of reason clicked something into place for me: I can build effective habits to help me work smarter, not longer. In fact, if I didn’t waste time surfing the internet and I instead took breaks to walk around outside when I needed a break from work, I bet that I would achieve more and thus finish sooner.
As for forgetting, I came up with three tools.
If I think of something I’d like to do, but I can’t put it in my Todoist app (if I’m driving, or example), I’ll simply tell my iPhone, “Hey Siri, remind me to look up Habit Formation hashtags on Instagram at 5pm.” Once I’ve tasked Siri with reminding me to do the task, I can put it out of my mind until it pops up on my phone. If I’m in a waiting room and I remember that I want to put my laundry in the washer when I get home, I can type in a reminder with the time that I imagine I’ll get home.
I also started that small notebook that I mentioned above in the What Habits Would I Like to Start list. I took a cute, small, shiny pink notebook and am dedicating a page to each day.
I want to get in the habit of pulling a daily mantra from Shannon Kaiser’s Find Your Happy Daily Mantras. The mantras provide me with a nice prompt for my day, but I’m sad to say that I sometime forget which one I pulled…or I forget to pull them at all! Now I write a summary of the mantra and its number at the top of my page, and I will keep doing this until it becomes a habit. I also write 3 checkboxes that I check off each time I check social media (once in the morning, afternoon, and evening). I jot down when and if I have pain in my back or tailbone so I can monitor what causes it and so I remember how to explain it specifically to the physical therapist. I jotted down ideas for the blog when they came to me, and it made drafting this week’s post much easier.
Gretchen Rubin describes the act of pairing as follows: “In the Strategy of Pairing, I couple two activities, one that I need or want to do, and one that I don’t particularly want to do, to get myself to accomplish them both” (211, emphasis original). I live alone, and the tasks that I don’t enjoy fall to me: scoop the kitty litter, do the dishes, file paperwork, clean out the fridge, etc. I especially don’t want to do any of these tasks when I’m tired or low energy. But I love the results of these behaviors (a clean, organized home), and I also love the idea of accomplishing two things at once (for example, I’m currently doing laundry as I revise this post).
Here’s an example of how I pair: I love NEPR’s Jazz à la Mode and it is guaranteed to make me happy, but I rarely make time to listen to it. Thus, if I put it on while I’m cleaning, organizing, or cooking, I get into a flow of the radio show and I feel like I get to enjoy the task because I’m enjoying the radio show. If you struggle to focus on grading or drafting, check out the two jazzy playlists I shared in the Focus post. You can talk on the phone while you go for walks, or you can lift hand weights while you grade papers. The possibilities are endless.
Here is one activity I’m going to try to pair: while I run my bath at night, I will scoop the kitty litter and take it out to the dumpster. I put a post it note by my bathtub to remind me to do this. This will greatly improve my life, and it would be an awesome habit to build.
I’ll be providing you with many more tools for habit formation throughout the month of April, but for now I’d encourage you to start with an inventory of your habits and a reflection of what kinds of habit building will work for you.
What Tendency Are You?
If you haven’t taken it yet, spend a couple minutes taking Rubin’s Four Tendencies quiz. Read some information about the four types. If you’re an Obliger like me, you likely find the accountability tools I’ve been listing helpful.
What Are Your Habits and Habit Dreams?
Jot down answers the following questions:
- What habits do you already have? (What comes naturally to you? What do you do without thinking about it?)
- What habits would you like to build?
- What habits would you like to stop?
Now that you’ve got that your lists, go back to them and answer why? for each one. Why do certain habits come easier to you? Can you apply that reasoning to building new habits? Why do you want to begin or end habits? Can you pair this to another habit? (For example, I paired quitting smoking cigarettes with being able to hold my own at the gym, and it made quitting so much easier!)
If you’re super into this exercise, you could write a list of your values and associate a value with each habit you want to build. You can find your values by doing my Three Keys to Abundance exercise, or by identifying 5-10 values that you identify with from a Google Search for “list of values” or “personal values.”
Do One Small Thing (or One Big Thing)
Identify one small thing that you can do to start achieving one habit change. If you are worried that you will forget, establish reminders for yourself. Some people like to take BIG steps (i.e., saying “I won’t eat sugar anymore” and literally not eating sugar anymore), but I like small changes. My pink notebook is a small change. Using Todoist for Mindful Production was a small change. Monitoring my spending was a small change. What small change can you make?
Kate Snowise offers a salient commentary on boxing ourself into personal descriptors in Episode 73 of Here To Thrive.